In Brief

Narrative, rather than visual and musical elements, predict what popular films will win critical acclaim, reported Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, at APA's 2005 Annual Convention. Movies that win awards for best screenplay, direction, acting and editing--all elements that primarily contribute to the film's story--tend to win best picture honors, while winning a nod for a song or soundtrack actually decreases a film's chances of winning best picture, according to a recent study by Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis.

In the research, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Vol. 34, No. 1, pages 1,494-1,520), Simonton analyzed 1,327 feature films released between 1968 and 1999 that were nominated for at least one Academy Award, British Academy Award, Golden Globe, New York Film Critics Circle Award, National Board of Review Award, National Society of Film Critics Award or Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award. Films that succeeded at telling a story well--as measured by the number of best screenplay, direction, acting and editing awards--tended to pick up the most "best picture" honors from these seven organizations.

Awards for visual elements--such as cinematography, art direction and costume design--also predicted critical acclaim. However, the correlation between narrative element awards and best picture awards is 10 times stronger than that between visual element awards and best picture awards, Simonton noted.

"Cinema seems to be first and foremost a narrative medium," said Simonton. "Drama drives a film's critical success."

Awards for musical elements slightly decreased a film's likelihood of winning best picture--perhaps because conspicuous songs can break up a film's narrative flow, he said.